Jesse Thorn is the host and producer of Public Radio International's The Sound of Young America, a cultural interview program he grew from humble beginnings at KZSC, the radio station of his alma mater, UC Santa Cruz. He's also the proprietor of Maximumfun.org, which hosts such other audio ventures as Jordan, Jesse, Go!, Coyle and Sharpe: The Impostors and The Kaspar Hauser Comedy Podcast. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
How much more?
The premise of the show is, “a public radio show about things that are awesome.” That translates to, essentially, a public radio show from my editorial perspective. We focus on things that are fun and funny, which means you get — for lack of a less annoying word — a “hipper” public radio show, but you also get a lot more comedy, a lot more indie rock and hip-hop and books about things that are fascinating.
Is this sort of thing totally absent from the public radio airwaves other than on your show? I feel like I haven't heard many comedians anywhere but on your show.
Comedians are almost totally absent from anywhere in serious public discourse, unfortunately. The kind of stuff I cover on my show occasionally pops up on other public radio outlets, and there have been public radio attempts to hew to this formula in a more system-wide or “big money” type of way that have thus far failed.
Usually, if you hear someone who's been on my show on another show, whether a good one or a bad one — and it could be on Fresh Air, which is one of my favorite shows in the world — when you hear that person, it's like they're a visitor. They're not native to those other programs. They're a curiosity, or a novelty, or they focus on some aspect of their story which doesn't have a lot to do with their work. Maybe it has more to do with the kind of narrative theme that somebody picks out for a newspaper feature story. You know, “So-and-So Happened to Be Raised By Dogs”? On my show, I like to think they're a little more at home.
So you provide a home for these sorts of comedians, rappers, these kinds of people who find the rest of public radio a storm they need a port in. What about your show makes it their home? Just because you know more about what they actually do, and you're not simply looking for a public radio-y way to bring some foreign cultural creator onto the scene?
Know and care about what they actually do. From my perspective, my show is at its best when I really care about what's going on the air. Not just in the sense that I want to make a good product — obviously I do — but when I interview somebody that I really care about their work, it shows, just like it does on other shows. I'm not a huge fan of Six Feet Under, but when Terry Gross talks to somebody who was on Six Feet Under, you can tell she really loved Six Feet Under. I think it brightens up the interview in a way that reading a lot of things a producer printed up and handed to you doesn't. Really understanding the cultural context of something.
I just try and bring something of myself to the show. As far as why people feel at home on the show, for one thing, it's literally in my home. 90 percent of my guests, at least, are comforted by the fact that, when they show up to do this radio interview, it's at an apartment building and I come down to meet them at the gate. I welcome them, literally, into my apartment, where I live, which is where my studio is. Folks make their life creating something, and it's really gratifying to have someone take it as seriously as they do. That's what I try and do with stuff that often doesn't get a chance to be taken seriously.
If you're a comedian, a lot of times if you're getting interviewed they're setting you up for your jokes — that's sort of the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is, they're setting you up for jokes that they expect you to generate on the spot, that in their mind is a good setup for a joke. I just try to make it a welcome place for people where it's clear that I actually give a hoot.
The fact that it's recorded in your Los Angeles apartment, there in beautiful Koreatown —
I should correct you. Koreatown is not very beautiful.
— in hideous Koreatown, these guests drive up —
“Hideous” also seems like an overstatement. It's… soiled.
— these guests drive through soiled Koreatown, desperately trying to find your apartment. They get there. You say they're comforted by it, which is nice to hear, because I was going to ask: you say there's a 90 percent comfort to this. Are the ten percent weirded out?
Most of them are weirded out. It's odd. But being upfront about the fact that it's odd really deflects a lot of the negative problems I might otherwise have had. Ultimately, somebody comes to my gate, and they may or may not have heard from their publicist that this was going to be in an apartment building, and they think it's odd, but usually they're not upset by it.
Once in a while, somebody is worried that this is going to be a two-bit operation, but that can be allayed by them sitting down. Within five minutes of me asking them questions, it's clear that it's not. I'm a professional at what I do. Given that, artists are interested in D.I.Y. They can understand immediately why I would want to do a show that's so personal in a way that a publicist might not.
To talk about how this show became what it is, we have to go back to its roots. I'm not going to make you retell the story about how you started it on KZSC, UC Santa Cruz's radio station. This program is actually broadcasting out of KCSB, the station from UC Santa Barbara; we're both proud products of the middle tier of the University of California system.
I would argue that I'm a product of the lower tier of the University of California system, but yes, continue.
Correct me if I have this wrong, but then the KZSC show was picked up by the local public radio station in Santa Cruz and then, from there, syndicated to something like Hattiesburg? It was at WNYC a little later, and then Public Radio International —
I actually started on Hattiesburg first, oddly enough. But besides that, you've got the story straight.
— it comes up from a college radio show, and, if I also have these facts straight — these were not producer-collected facts — The Sound began as what I would call a “hangout” college variety show. You had friends in there, doing whatever you thought might make a fun listening experience. But then you started bringing guests on. Hearing an interview from those days, what would be the most obvious differences in your style between one from now and one from the dawn of the show?
In the very beginning, we started booking interview guests essentially because the smallest block of time available on KSZC was one hour a week. We knew that we didn't just want to play records — I mean, we did play a fair volume of records — but we didn't want pretend to be a talk show but actually were just playing CDs. We realized quickly that an hour a week is a lot of original content to generate.
I can't remember who we booked right at first, but some of the early ones were Matt Besser of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar. Just people who happened to have their e-mail address on their web site. We realized an interview with them would fill half a show where all the pressure was basically on the guest to be interesting.
That's not a good plan, as it turns out. He'll just start claiming to have invented genres of music.
There were three of us at the time. [“Big Time”] Gene [O'Neill] never participated much in the interviews, but Jordan [Morris], who now goes Jordan, Jesse, Go! with me, did actively. If you listen hard enough, you can probably hear us wildly flipping our heads back and forth at each other and gesticulating, trying to figure out who had an idea for what the next question would be. I feel really lucky to have learned to do interviews in a context where, if I didn't have anything, I could just put my palms in the air and open my eyes wide and shake my head like “I got nothin', I got nothin'.” I would point at Jordan and Gene and one of them would raise their hand and be like, “Okay, okay” silently while the guest was talking on the phone.
You just get more comfortable doing it after a long time. I've been doing it for so long. I never got any instruction on how to do it. I just try and remember to ask questions instead of making statements.
When you started bearing the brunt of the interviews yourself, when there were no co-hosts, did you look to any other examples of the interviewing craft, or is your style completely a product of trial and error?
For the most part, it's a product of trial and error. There's not a lot of art there. In terms of folks who I've really admired their interviewing style, of course Terry Gross, which is the obvious answer, but any interviewer who's not a fool can learn so much from listening to Terry Gross. She's completely unassuming, always asks people for examples and always asks the questions you would want to hear the answers to. She's always Terry Gross, you know?
Another is actually Conan O'Brien. I'm a big Conan O'Brien fan, but not as big as some people are — my real hero is David Letterman more than Conan — but one of the things that Conan does really amazingly in these almost scripted interviews is, he's fantastically funny without ever taking the focus from his guest or making the humor at the expense of the guest. That's very difficult to do. He's obviously a million trillion billion times funnier than me. One in a million funniness. Probably more than one in a million. But his balance between keeping the focus on the guest and being funny is something that I really admire.
It's fascinating that you bring up those two examples. In some ways they seem like a study in contrast. Nobody would argue that Terry Gross doesn't do a good job, but she has a very particular interview style. It seems like if Terry Gross could come up with a question that would just kick off the guest to speak intelligently for the remainder of the interview — she wouldn't have to say another question, because that question was so good — she would do it. Whereas it seems like Conan O'Brien and that type, there's more willing injection of their own personality. What balance have you found yourself having to strike between the “facilitated speech” mode of interviewing and the “put your own personality” mode?
I think of myself as being in the “facilitated speech” mode, but then I talk to some public radio program director and they think I'm the most outrageously personality-driven radio host in history. People whose world is public radio — and for public radio people, their world really tends to be public radio — they think I'm, like, insane. They're like, “God, stop interjecting things! Stop adding to the conversation!”
I can understand that, but like I said, one of the reasons I really like Conan O'Brien is that, in his interviews — unless it's someone really awful — the interview stays on the guest. He's trying to make the guest look good. I have the opportunity of having half an hour instead of seven minutes, and being on the radio instead of being on television, where you can be a lot more abstract. A big part of my goal is to get a lot of information out of my guest in a way that Conan O'Brien isn't trying to do.
I wouldn't want to be like David Letterman interviewing a guest. Again, if I was going to pick one person as the greatest person in the world, it would be David Letterman. But David Letterman's interviews are sort of like a fight with the guest.
In the case of Crispin Glover, maybe literally a fight.
He's playing a game at a level that's so far above anyone else that he's like a cat playing with a ball of string, whether it's positive or negative. A lot of people think he's more of a jerk than I do. I think he often really enjoys his guests, but he's such a funniness genius and it's so obvious in the interviews that it's like he's riding a spaceship and everybody else is in a Datsun. I'll never be that funny, and I would never want to be in that position for that reason.
It's a tough balance to find, but I try and sort of… follow the guest? There are guests who come in and they immediately want to play the game. I can tell. Like the author Dan Kennedy. When Dan Kennedy came on the show, I knew right away, first answer, that he was present with me and wanted to have fun. I'll follow that; I'll pull out that thread. There's other guests who want to be really sincere. Take a guest like the rapper Peedi Crakk. I'm a big fan of Peedi Crakk. He's been on a major label for a long time, but he did this interview where he really opened up and was really sincere, which you don't really hear. Rap is about constructing a persona, so you don't get that a lot from an MC. I followed that. It's about actually being there and offering yourself, saying, “I'm here. Are you?”
This is very much an interviewer-to-interviewer question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: do you have the experience where a guest is there, and prepared to give you essentially the “blurb” of their book? They have a prepared set of remarks, and they come in ready to give you a speech. Not even a facilitated speech. Do you find yourself having to break past that?
Of course. I always read whatever interviews I can get my hands on of an upcoming guest, and that's sort of unusual. One of the reasons is, it's always good to know what they'll be excited to talk about. Another is to be able to tell what is their boilerplate. Usually their boilerplate is something important, or else everyone wouldn't be asking them about it, but there are certain things that I can do expositorily that will give me the opportunity to ask the question from a different perspective, or in a new way, or ask about some angle of it that hasn't been considered much.
Occasionally someone will come in and try to steamroll me. I had Lloyd Kaufman in here the other day, the founder of Troma Films. The nicest guy in the universe. This guy seriously couldn't be nicer and more friendly. He invited me to stay at his home whenever I want, like ten minutes in to our conversation.
This is why you do public radio — it's why I do it.
And he tried to steamroll me in the interview. I had this experience interviewing Jello Biafra. This is a guy who makes his living by talking for two hours straight extemporaneously. I try and deflect it a little bit.
I recall your interview with Henry Rollins of Black Flag, now a spoken-word artist, a while back. He started hammering you with his life philosophy: “If you're hungry, man, I gotta feed you…” It was fun, but I was like, “I'm glad I wasn't Jesse during this interview, because it must've been intense.”
Usually what I try and to is find something that will surprise the guest a little bit. Not in a sneak-attack type of way.
We should emphasize that The Sound is the most un-“gotcha” question show I've ever heard.
I have less than no interest in “gotcha” questions, except in very rare instances. I just try and find new shades. If somebody gives me their boilerplate, I'll ask them why. It's a simple question, but… I remember asking Henry Rollins about being so big and muscle-y.
“Why is your neck so thick?”
I really wanted to know! Because it was obviously a choice; he obviously decided to start working out. He said, “Aw, you're probably thinking of the old me. I was a lot more buff then.” I was like, “I don't know, the current you is still pretty ripped compared to me, for example.” That's an odd question, I guess, but something that I was sincerely curious about, and he actually answered me pretty sincerely. I thought that was a really great interview; I felt like I learned a lot from him.
As far as the research you do — or, I should say, the research that should be done — before any interview, have you ever gotten the situation where you will talk to an author, you'll talk for a good half-hour or so, you have a good conversation, you wrap it up, you hit stop and the author looks shocked and says, “You actually read my book!”
Totally, all the time. I have an easy job, as an interviewer relative to other interviewers. If I was on the Today show, my job would be so much harder because — or even if I was hosting the Marty and The Goose show, I don't know whether I'd be Marty or The Goose, you'll have to decide — these folks have a trillion, billion, quajillion things on their plates and their interviews are five minutes long. They can't really explore; they just have to have somebody that tells them, “Here's some points we know will work.” If there's anything even slightly wrong about them, they don't have room to recover, and they certainly don't have time to read a whole book.
I'm lucky to be in a position where I don't have to do it that way. I'm really only interviewing one and a half people a week. I can really be ready for that interview. And to be frank, I don't always read the entire book. I know this is terrifying, but once in a while I don't have time; once in a while I just have to read a big part of the book, skim other parts of the book and read a lot of reviews of the book and interviews with the author.
I'm still impressed. I can't help but think that something is wrong when someone who's done so many interview cycles on public radio still expresses surprise that I or you or whomever still has actually ingested the text of the book that they've written and are ostensibly there to promote.
I hosted a morning show on XM for a week. Not because I got fired; I was filling in for someone. It was so hard. It was so hard. I'm lucky to be in a position where I get to do it this way. It's really too bad that there aren't more outlets like this. On the other hand, I feel lucky to be in a position where I get to do it.
I don't know if you've thought about it in these terms, but with the idea of “facilitated speech” versus injecting one's own personality, one of the qualities of The Sound that pulled me in at first was a distinction from what I was hearing on public radio. Though well produced, I was hearing a lot of interviews, but not a lot of conversations. The distinction I make there is that one is predominantly one-way; the other is a two-way exchange. Conversation is the one I prefer, because, since high school, my interviewing idol has been — say what you will about him — Charlie Rose, who does one of the few examples on television of a two-way exchange. Do you think of your own interviews as in the two-way circle of the Venn diagram?
I understand the distinction you're making. One of the reasons I'm hesitant to use the word “conversation” is that my interviews are always — and I think this is true of Charlie Rose as well — focused on the guest and the guest's ideas. It just so happens that I'm actually interested in the guest and the guest's ideas and engaged with them in a way a lot of folks aren't. Charlie Rose is. You can get so invested in being dispassionate, that… you lose all your passion. I don't think it's the right format for every show, but it's the show that I want to do, and usually the show that I want to listen to.
Anybody who follows The Sound, especially on the web site where there's a blog and a forum, will not only be following the content of your programs, but they'll also be following — I don't want to call it the struggle, but — the journey of The Sound of Young America to get more national exposure, to be on more radio stations. What are the obstacles to wider distribution, to your mind?
Public radio program directors.
Ah, this is gonna be a can of worms.
There's about 200 of 'em. Those, I would say, are the obstacles. It's available to them and they have not, thus far, by and large, chosen to avail themselves of that availability. Here's the thing: public radio has spent 20 years developing a very specific aesthetic. To someone outside of public radio show, my show fits that aesthetic pretty well. It's an in-depth interview show. It's, format-wise, very close to Fresh Air. But to people inside public radio, it hews very far from that aesthetic.
Public radio program directors — a lot of this is conjecture — came up through news. No public radio program directors came up through entertainment. The main entry-level job in public radio is as a reporter. When you're putting together a three- or four-minute piece, you learn certain values that aren't necessarily the values of my show. They have to do with being “sound rich,” which is a big catchphrase in public radio. They have to do with being incredibly punchy, and essentially being three minutes long. Whereas my show is about being half an hour long. They perceive it as being very breezy, too loose, not heavily edited enough. One big difference between my show and Fresh Air is, Terry Gross will often do an hour or 90 minutes with a guest for an interview that gets cut down to 20 or 25. On my show, I'll often do 34 minutes on an interview that gets cut down to… 29.
I do the exact same thing. They say, “We recorded for an hour. How long's the broadcast?” “Ah, gonna be about 58:23.”
Precisely. Frankly, that's because I don't have the resources to do really long interviews. I don't have the resources to get guests for a really long time. I don't have the resources to do really long interviews and then spend a really long time editing them, et cetera, et cetera. To public radio program directors, my show sounds crazy in a way that boggles my mind. Ultimately, what it's about is that the median age of a public radio audience member is 52 or 53. I just went to a conference where there was a presentation about the public radio audience and their use of technology. The audience was separated into two demographics: “older” and “younger”. “Older” was “53 and up,” and “younger” was “52 and below”. So a young listener in public radio is anyone 52 years old and younger.
And This American Life, the “young” show of public radio — it's not a young show anymore, but a hit with the most young people on public radio — has an average listener age of 47.
That's about how old Ira is — again, another superhero of mine. It's funny that you brought up This American Life. The one big success that is different from the traditional public radio sound is This American Life, which in some ways is just an extension of the traditional public radio sound, but it's unique and does have a “hipper” audience than a lot of things on public radio. But (a) that was ten years ago, and (b) most efforts in public radio toward getting younger or hipper have been in the direction of making second-rate versions of This American Life.
I've heard a bunch of 'em.
Which has created a lot of great of stuff, but which has nothing to do with what I do. There's lots of amazing audio documentaries that never would have existed without the influence of This American Life, but I'm not making audio documentaries.
Ultimately, these program directors look at my guest list, they don't recognize any of the names, they listen to my tone, it's a little bit more jovial, and they think, “You know what? This is for young people. It's not for my audience.” It's hard to get any public radio show on the air, shows with million-dollar budgets. NPR's Day to Day got cancelled, and I'm sure they were spending three, four, five million dollars a year. Iin my case it seems to have been particularly difficult, but making slow and steady progress. I'm proud to be on the stations that I'm on: WNYC in New York, WHYY in Philadelphia, two of the biggest public radio stations in the country. There's a lot of folks in public radio who like the show, but there's a lot more for whom it seems a little bit foreign.
It does seem to be a leitmotif in what you write on the blog. And by way of full disclosure — I don't want anybody e-mailing me about this — yes, I do write for the Maximumfun.org blog. The terrible conflict of interest here has been revealed.
You do write for free, though.
I do write completely for free. What I was going to say about this was, on the blog, you express — it's not complaint so much, not even dismay — it's more just a deep concern that the vast majority of the public radio establishment in America doesn't realize that they're marginalizing themselves out of cultural relevance.
What you probably hear in my writing voice is… it gets very frustrating, you know? I've talked to the producers of the show A Way with Words, and they're just super nice, and they have a lot of the same frustrations given a premise that is much less antithetical to the personal perspective of program directors than mine. Yet they get the same frustrations because it's just really hard to get a public radio show on the air, on stations. Ultimately, the issue is that public radio has done such a spectacular job of doing what they're doing that their audience is still growing in a time when it is literally the only segment of the radio market — and one of the few of broadcast in general — that's still growing, because they've done a really kick-ass job of making Morning Edition-like programming.
They've been doing that for 20 years, and in the last 20 years, the new things that have come along are literally Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me and This American Life. That's it. Over 20 years. They've been so focused on doing a great job of making Morning Edition and All Things Considered and shows like them: Weekend Edition and et cetera, et cetera, on and on. You have this generation of people who have been really successful, doing a really great job of a really important thing. They just don't see enough incentive to risk what they've built on new things, especially new things that seem like they could alienate their audience or don't have the polish of the stuff they've been putting on the air. I can understand that, but it's tough to be in my position.
I don't want to have us sound like we're picking specifically on public radio, because I don't think this is a problem unique to public radio. Adam Carolla, formerly of Loveline and, more recently, more of a morning zoo — which was always something he hated, so I never quite understood that — on KLSX, started his own podcast. It became the number one podcast on iTunes immediately, with this opening rant I thought was so incisive that I had to transcribe myself and post to the Maximum Fun forum. You posted it on the blog.
Adam says that, in any segment of radio — he comes from commercial radio and I have a background in that as well — there's this segment of people that he calls “beavers,” who are so ingrained in one behavior, like a beaver is in dam-building, that they will do it no matter the outside conditions. I didn't know how much this applied to public radio as commercial radio — where it is bad — but you've said that it's not entirely different.
I'm impressed at the extent of public radio's myopia about media and their place in it. A lot of public radio's success in new media has been because public radio's values are totally in the right place and of new technology — podcasting, for example. Public radio thinks of the public's interest first, and that worked out really well when that meant “put out a podcast and figure out how to get money from it later.” But you meet with a lot of public radio people and you're impressed with the extent to which their understanding of the media world is completely driven by public radio.
I'm not exempt from this myself; I get my news from public radio. I don't think it's quite as bad as it is in commercial radio. I worked briefly in commercial radio. I was just… blown away.
Adam Carolla was not exaggerating. He was being conservative, if anything.
Just the very prospect that… how many stars does commercial radio have? It has one: Adam Carolla. At least FM, if you exclude political talk. And they just threw him away. All media is myopic, but radio in particular has had its success, mostly on the commercial side and on the public media side, by hunkering down over the past fifteen, 20 years. Commercial radio in terms of the mergers that have happened, and the emergence of research on both sides. People have been so busy hunkering down that they haven't realized basic stuff. Commercial radio still seems not to have figured out that they don't have any content. Once their distribution channel loses primacy in ten years, they're just out of luck.
Commercial radio at this point, has, like, Danny Bonaduce and a copy of Selector.
There's something else that seems to be a creeping disease in any sector of media —
And that's the gout.
It's the gout. It affects a lot of toes in media. Second to the gout is this notion that one's own audience is kind of… below oneself. It's an underestimation of the audience. I'll give you an example: when I was doing music commercial radio, my program director said to me, “Okay, when you're talking on the mic, don't picture someone hip. You gotta picture a chunky 50-year-old white guy in a Hawaiian shirt.”
Sometimes I'll talk to public radio people who say something very similar. They find themselves picturing the cartoon stereotype, the 49-year-old walking from their Volvo to Crate and Barrel or back to their Volvo from Crate and Barrel. What do you see when you think of the Sound of Young America listener in your mind? It seems less cartoonish than those two.
My guiding philosophy on The Sound of Young America has been this: I've done this show so long and gotten paid so little — and I don't want to be whining about money because the show now affords me an honest living and I feel so grateful for that — when I did it the first five years in my free time from my full-time work and full-time schooling and wasn't getting paid anything, what can motivate me to do that? Stuff I really like. Rather than worrying too much about the audience, I try and focus on stuff I really like.
I do worry about the audience in the sense that I try and make something worth listening to. That's really important because, especially in new media, people forget about making something worth consuming because they're so busy expressing themselves. I feel like there are a lot of people out there who like fun and like cool stuff. And they're smart. Those are the things I care about, and I know there's other people out there because I know these people. Some of them are public radio listeners already. Some of them aren't. But there's this huge media landscape, and if I can point people to things that are good and help them learn more and connect more with things they already think are good, then I'm doing a good job.
There's a quality to the show that — I don't know quite how to put it, but I'll phrase it like this: I was interviewing a foreign TV personality, and he said that he had trouble breaking into the U.S. market because England and Australia and such, they're more comfortable with the idea of serious though coexisting with levity. In America, for some reason, they're much less welcoming to that. Is that a phenomenon you have also observed?
Certainly in the mass media. One of the cool things about the internet is that it's a proving ground for that kind of stuff. I know for a fact that Patton Oswalt has an audience, and Patton Oswalt doesn't have to demonstrate that by selling himself through twelve different gatekeepers who all think that everyone is dumb. I feel lucky to have the internet, a place where I can do something reasonably intelligent and I don't have to get permission to do it from a million different people. Whether the audience for that stuff is huge or modest, I don't have to worry, because I know there's at least enough people to pay my rent. I'll just keep doing it.
What was the place of public radio in your early life, growing up? It seems this is an institution that's been important to you.
I've always been a public radio listener. I used to listen to Wild 107.7 a little bit when I was an adolescent, just to hear the latest Tony! Toni! Toné! hits, but for the most part, I've been a public radio listener. As a teenager I spent a lot of time with sports talk radio, and then sports talk radio, at least on my local station, took a turn towards the kind of “Pour 'em a brew!” kind of thing that I wasn't very interested in, even as a fifteen-year-old.
And if that can't get the fifteen-year-olds, there's serious trouble.
I was a pretty weird fifteen-year-old. At the arts high school and everything. But I've always listened to public radio, and I've never thought of it as being something that wasn't for me. Some people have this relationship with public radio like it's a secret. Jordan Morris, my cohost on Jordan Jesse Go!, grew up in Orange County. His mom, who's a super nice lady, likes to listen to Dr. Laura, and so the music of his childhood is Dr. Laura. Even now, when he feels nervous, he's told me that sometimes he'll put on the hot talk station because it makes him feel like he's at home.
It's like going back to the womb.
Exactly. There's a lot of people like that, who discover public radio and they're like, “Oh, there's other people like me!” But frankly, I grew up in inner-city San Francisco. My parents are bohemian intellectuals. What else were they going to listen to on the radio? There's only one choice for those people, so I listened to that a lot as a kid. I always enjoyed it, but I remember when This American Life came on the air, which was ten years or so ago, maybe a little bit more, I remember thinking, “Wow, what is this? This is weird. This is really pretentious.” Then I thought, “Oh my god, this is great! I don't have to adjust myself into a public radio mindset to listen to public radio. This feels like it's actually for me.” That made me think that public radio could be more than just something I listened to, that maybe it could be something I did. I owe that transition from being a public radio listener to thinking of myself as a potential public radio programmer to Mr. Ira Glass.
What I think has been inspiring about The Sound is that, listening to the show, you can take it as a narrative. You can hear Mr. Jesse Thorn getting closer and closer to — I don't want to call them your idols, but — people that you've obviously admired for a long time. It's great to hear them wind up sitting there in your apartment. With This American Life especially, you had Ira Glass on your show. It seemed like your relationship to that institution had developed to the point that you love it so much that that's the time you could break out a question or two that is more critical, by the standards of The Sound.
I was so disappointed, when I was researching for that interview — and at this point, I've listened to at least 90 percent of every episode, especially thanks to a period in college when I would listen to the RealAudio archives whenever I had a migraine — I felt like nobody really asked Ira Glass about the underlying philosophies of his show. Some people said, “Oh, you really gave him the business.” But I know that, if anyone on Earth has a strong underlying philosophy to what they do, it's Ira Glass. That's a guy who spent 20 years working in National Public Radio, and I'm sure, that whole time, he was thinking, “What do I want to do?” When he finally did it, it was really a struggle; This American Life didn't take off by itself.
Ira Glass' story coming up is, like, absurdly hard.
It's incredibly difficult. Ira just happened into public radio. People think of him as being a public radio native, and he is in the sense that he's always worked in public radio since he was nineteen, but he didn't care about public radio when he got the gig. I knew that he had this really strong philosophy, and I also felt confident in knowing that no one would think that I don't like Ira Glass. Obviously, the guy's my hero. I'd met him before, and he was really, really nice to me. As he pointed out, jokingly, I have basically interviewed like 60 percent of the regular contributors to This American Life.
What you did was essentially encircle him.
That's what he said. I felt like I could ask him some actually probing questions. A lot of times, the best way to ask an actually probing question is to just say, “Well, what about this?”, in which this is something mildly adversarial, or a contrarian viewpoint. If I felt like I would've embarrassed Ira in some way by doing that, I wouldn't have done it. I didn't do it because I thought I would get a deer-in-the-headlights moment. I did it because I felt like that was the best way to get serious insight into the show. I asked those questions because I knew he had the answers, and I wanted to hear him say what he was thinking about.
And, we should add, this episode's freely available at Maximumfun.org. You can even subscribe.
Yeah, like all of my programming, freely available at Maximumfun.org. It's another one of the principles I've built the show on.
We're talking about This American Life, something you love, something you've taken inspiration from, something that got you through a lot of migraines. There is another institution — maybe bigger, in the world of public radio — that, through some of things you've said, some of the responses to the things people have asked you —
Oh god. Are we going to talk about A Prairie Home Companion now?
We are going to talk about A Prairie Home Companion, because you haven't said anything about it in a while. What do you actually regard that show as?
I want to start by saying I choose to interpret this question as being in the same spirit as those tough questions I asked Ira Glass. First of all, I like Garrison Keillor. I think he's funny. He has a beautiful voice. I mean that totally sincerely. I've read things he's written that I thought were totally really funny. He's also been a driving force behind some of the cooler experiments in public radio. He's used his power for good, for the most part. But I totally don't like A Prairie Home Companion.
I don't want to be the guy who hates A Prairie Home Companion, because I understand that people really love it and that's totally fine with me. I'm all for diversity, and part of diversity is that some of the things will be things you don't like as much as other things. But I totally don't like A Prairie Home Companion. For one thing, I don't like the music at all, except when they have Randy Newman on. The music is just like, if you really worked hard to pick the music that I like the least, it would be the music on A Prairie Home Companion. Which is just a matter of personal taste.
But… I just don't think the comedy on the show is funny. It's not funny to me. Again, a matter of personal taste. It's almost not comedy, often.
Like a New Yorker cartoon?
I kind of like New Yorker cartoons sometimes. I find Garrison Keillor funny in other contexts, so it's not about Garrison Keillor not being funny. People treat it as though it's comedy when it's just about tone. It's really the comedy snob in me that's upset by it. I bet the people that work for A Prairie Home Companion are super nice, because basically everybody I've met in public radio is just crazy nice. But it's just not funny to me. I feel like it's barely even jokes.
That's reason enough. Being funny is very important to you.
It's basically all I care about in the entire world. There's a certain amount I care about my family, but mostly I care about being funny.
Effective humor that is not just tonal and that is not based mostly on made-up biscuit commercials.
Yeah, and when I say “being funny,” I'm not talking about me specifically. I just mean things that are funny. The other thing about it I don't like — and again, this is something very subjective — something feels to me, personally, a little bit insincere and patronizing about the Midwestern rural-ness of the show. I don't think it's intended that way. Sometimes Garrison Keillor can be really amazing, and I think it's an amazing feat to put on that show every week, and he does it spectacularly, but it's just not for me. And it's really dominant in the public radio world.
But honestly, my real feeling about it is, I would love to hear more stuff like A Prairie Home Companion on public radio. A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk, which I usually do like, they're both shows that are really different from the other stuff on public radio. Outside of occasionally trying to copy them, public radio hasn't tried to do a lot that's different from the things on public radio. Both A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk are really old — they've been around a long time, they were around before public radio got really careful about research and making sure everything is exactly like everything else — and they're also both huge hits. They're insulated against the vagaries of the public radio landscape by virtue of the fact that they're institutions that can't be messed with. I wish public radio was more enterprising, and that there were people trying to do more. That's something I don't often see. When I do see it, I rarely see support for it from stations.
There's shows that try and do something, like one of Garrison Keillor's shows, Pop Vultures. Honestly, I wasn't that nuts about the show, but it was an interesting experiment sincerely trying to reach a new audience and be its own thing. It just got left out on the laundry line, or whatever the expression is, by the public radio stations. After its grant money ran out, one year in, it just folded. That's what happened with The Bryant Park Project and Fair Game. It isn't just about stuff with younger listeners; it happened to NPR's Justice Talking. I would love to see in radio more of the kind of entrepreneurialism and experimentalism that you see — I hate to say it — in television. People try things in television. Say what you will about TV, but in today's landscape, people do try stuff. One good way of finding out what works is trying stuff. Public radio is institutionally, structurally set up in a way that is very hostile toward trying stuff. It's really problematic. Even if A Prairie Home Companion isn't necessarily for me, I'm really happy that there's room in the public radio landscape that's slightly different from other stuff on public radio.
We're both working on public radio projects that are important to us, and there are certain qualities of them that we wouldn't relinquish, even if it meant less success. For me, it's the long-form interviews. Maybe hour interviews are XXL long form in the radio world, I don't know, but the bottom line there is that's not something I would sacrifice, even if sacrificing it was the only hope for success. What component of The Sound of Young America would you never sacrifice?
The “me” component. Ultimately what The Sound of Young America is about is not me, but my perspective. It's about me choosing the guests and doing things I really believe in. Frankly, if I was going to do something where I wasn't choosing guests and doing something I really believed in, I'd do something that paid a lot better. The reason I was cool making $18,000 a year for quite a number of years there was doing something I love and care about. There are situations in which I'd be willing to consider doing things I didn't love and care about to that extent, but not on The Sound of Young America. The things I do on Maximumfun.org are about the things I love and believe in, and I wouldn't be willing to give that up for anything.